By Marta Gravier
Back in the States, I grew up fitting into the standards of beauty mass media of the West has propagated since essentially forever. I was a little ballerina, tall and thin since childhood, with long brown hair, pale skin, and blue eyes. On top of that, I grew up in great neighborhoods with a great family. There was no debate as to whether or not I made a cute kid, because I fit right in when it came to looks. Fast forward to landing in Timor, and looking like me has become a whole different ball game.
Now, Timor has an interesting and sadly common imperialistic history. They were colonized by the Portuguese since the mid-1500s for their coffee and sandalwood, enjoyed a 10-day independence in 1974 when Portugal dissolved their last colonies, and then were invaded and occupied by Indonesia under the dictator of the time, Suharto, for almost 30 years. During that Indonesian occupation, countless human rights violations took place, about a third of the population wiped out in massacre or hunger, and Timor had no contact with the outside world for over a decade. In short, the white man came and took these people for all their resources for about 500 years, they left for a bit, and then these other people came in and cut them off from the rest of the world, until in the year 2000, they shook free of their grasp and finally declared independent with the help of United Nations. And during all these periods of fighting for independence, one thing seemed to remain constant: the people with the money and resources always had skin a few shades lighter.
The significance of this, of course, is that for most of their recent history, Timor has been conditioned to think that the pale foreigners are successful probably not just because they were born lucky, but because they were fundamentally better. Somehow, these white Europeans and pale Indonesians are fundamentally stronger, better, wealthier, and more beautiful. Many of those qualities have been attributed to their skin tone; many more were attributed to a sense of inferiority.
So, when I first stepped foot in the small mountain village of Railaco in the Ermera district, back in August six months ago, I was a wonder, along with the twenty other volunteers in the group. Not only was I from the Great Americas—I was also white, blue eyed, and a spitting image of their version of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So in terms of beauty there, I was off the charts.
At first this was all fine and good, but after a month and finally getting better at the language, I found a dark side to all this admiration. I began to catch phrases from little girls like, “White is more beautiful than black,” or even pregnant women who would say, “I will sit close to her so that my child will be as pale and beautiful as she.” What had started out as what I thought were innocent compliments became one of the most difficult things I face in this country. Here I was, with an entourage of grandmothers, mothers, and girls as young as three, telling me in nearly every conversation that because of my whiteness and my blue eyes, I was the prettiest girl in the village. The worst part? I still did not possess the language skills to explain that what they were saying was hurting them more than helping me.
Back in the States, we have a problem. But back in the States, there is a strong, beautiful community of women standing up to change damaging standards of beauty. Every time I see something on my Facebook feed or Instagram where people are taking a stand and changing what it means to be beautiful to encompass all, it means so much. Because out here, in beautiful Timor, no one knows their own beauty. They refuse to believe me when I say that I don’t have a favorite skin tone (theirs is always white), and are convinced by their Indonesian television ads that they need to buy into skin bleaching lotions and face lightening makeup. They are convinced by the Portuguese still wandering their streets on winter vacations that they will never be good enough, and that they will always be inferior because they don’t look the part and are still considerably poor.
Do me a favor, dear readers—keep fighting to change images in the media. Lord knows that there are countless girls (and boys, too) that are still being conditioned into believing brown skin is something to be ashamed of. They are still being taught that somehow they are inferior, and that they can’t change it. Timor has a long way to go in terms of this development of personal pride, but the States are so close. Europe isn’t far behind. It’s a race to redefine beauty, and we can’t stop now. I can help out one girl at a time here on the ground floor, but out in the developed world, keep fighting on the big stage. Keep fighting for a better world. Do it for the girls of Ermera.
Disclaimer: The content of this blog post does not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Government, the Peace Corps, or the Timor-Leste Government.